HAMPDEN, Maine — Russ Bartlett is like most other coaches cast in the favorite’s role, confident about his team’s potential but eager to deflect attention to rival contenders in the Eastern Maine Class A basketball world.
And while Bartlett and the Hampden Academy Broncos have been picked by Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference coaches as the team to beat again this winter, there’s reason to believe the defending Eastern A champions will face a deeper field of challengers in their bid to win back-to-back regional titles for the first time since 2005 and 2006.
“Lawrence [of Fairfield] is going to be really good, Lewiston and Edward Little [of Auburn] are going to be really good,” said Bartlett, “and Brunswick and Brewer are going to be teams that are right in the mix along with Cony [of Augusta].
“I think the [KVAC’s] southern division may be a little deeper than the north this year, which is probably the first time I would have said that to you in the last five or six years.”
Hampden, 20-2 a year ago, graduated the state’s reigning Mr. Basketball, guard Christian McCue, along with its frontcourt duo of 6-foot-7 Fred Knight and 6-6 Logan Poirier. But the Broncos return considerable depth led by junior forward Zach Gilpin and senior swingman Matt Palmer.
Seniors Brian Fickett and Tyler Norris will be asked to pick up much of the inside slack, while junior Cam Scott takes over at point guard. All three came off the Hampden bench a year ago.
The Broncos also have four freshmen on the roster, including Nick Gilpin, Zach’s younger brother.
“I think we are all on board and have the common goal of getting back to where we were last year,” said Bartlett. “I think everyone remembers what it felt like to lose that state final, and getting another shot obviously would be a goal of ours but we’ve got a long way to go before we can get to that point.”
One reason many of Hampden’s primary challengers may come from the KVAC’s southern division is that two northern division stalwarts — Bangor and Mt. Blue of Farmington — will be regrouping after two coaches with more than 1,000 victories between them left their programs during the off-season.
At Mt. Blue, Josh Bishop takes over from Jim Bessey, who retired after a 40-year coaching career — including 36 at the Farmington school — that produced 475 victories.
Ed Kohtala, a longtime high school and college coach who spent the last three years as an assistant at the University of Maine, steps in at Bangor for Roger Reed, who resigned after 27 years with the Rams that included eight Class A state championships and 457 of his 571 career high school coaching victories.
Both teams will have considerably different rosters, too. Mt. Blue graduated all five starters from last year’s Eastern Maine finalists, while Bangor returns just one senior from last year’s varsity squad that reached the regional semifinals.
“My early impressions are that we have some kids that can shoot the ball so hopefully that will open up the floor and allow our post players to get some work done inside,” said Kohtala. “We’re probably about as good as our man defense, and on offense we’re probably about as good as our willingness to share the ball and take good shots, and I’ve seen some positive signs there.”
Senior forward Matt Cosgrove and junior guard Hunter Boyce likely will play leadership roles on the junior-heavy team.
Neighboring Brewer may be playing in its final season of Class A competition for now, with reclassification potentially sending the Witches to Eastern Maine Class B for at least the next two seasons.
The Witches were in the tournament hunt until the final days of last year’s regular season, and returns a fairly young nucleus under coach Ben Goodwin.
Brewer will count on senior forward Ian Burgess to provide much of the inside play, while junior Brendan Newcomb a leader on the perimeter along with sophomore point guard Zach Gulesian.
Skowhegan hopes to improve on last year’s 3-15 finish under head coach Dave Simpson.
After graduating 69 percent of last year’s offense in Levi Barnes — now playing at Thomas College in Waterville — and Ethan Johnson, Skowhegan will turn to 6-foot-5 center Taylor Bacon and fellow captain Patrick Poirier for leadership.
Sophomores Eli Holland, Dequan Frost and Dan Quirion and freshman Isaac Witham also will have an opportunity to make an early splash at the varsity level.
Last year’s record/finish: 14-6/Eastern Maine semifinalist
Coach: Ed Kohtala
Roster: Jr. Connor Adams, Jr. Nick Ashey, Jr. Hunter Boyce, Jr. Alex Campbell, Jr. Nate Caruso, Sr. Matt Cosgrove, So. Alik Espling, So. Liam Harrigan, Jr. Garrett Johnson, So. Trey Kenny, Sr. Tyler Kenney, Sr. Tyler LaPlante, So. Cote Sawyer, So. Stephen Speronis, Sr. Sean Tocci
Last year’s record/finish: 7-11/did not qualify for playoffs
Coach: Ben Goodwin
Roster: Sr. Dylan Birmingham, Sr. Ian Burgess, So. Mike Grimble, So. Zack Gulesian, Jr. Adam Lakeman, Jr. Adam Lufkin, Jr. Brendan Newcomb, Sr. Ben Pushard, Fr. Matthew Pushard, Fr. Logan Rogerson, So. Jared St. Thomas, Sr. Jeff Weeks
HAMPDEN ACADEMY BRONCOS
Last year’s record/finish: 20-2/Eastern Maine champions
Coach: Russ Bartlett
Roster: Fr. Jake Black, Sr. Brian Fickett, Fr. Nicholas Gilpin, Jr. Zach Gilpin, Jr. DeShaun Jones, Jr. Matt Martin, Fr. Brendan McIntyre, Fr. Conar Moore, Sr. Tyler Norris, Sr. Matt Palmer, Jr. Cameron Scott, Sr. Samuel Scott, Sr. Logan Steward
Last year’s record/finish: 3-15/did not qualify for playoffs
Coach: Dave Simpson
Roster: Sr. Tyler Bacon, So. Tyler Chartrand, Fr. Ryke Dorr, So. Dequan Frost, So. Eli Holland, Sr. Patrick Poirier, So. Dan Quirion, Sr. Riley Teixeira, Sr. Mike Watson, Sr.. Samuel Wheeler, Fr. Isaac Witham